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Ford Hybrid Emphasizes High Mileage

With gas prices below $2 a gallon, it would seem an inopportune time for the Ford Motor Company to introduce a hybrid sedan.

Ford

But at 41 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 miles per gallon on the highway, Ford is confident that its Fusion Hybrid will make an impression in the marketplace.

“The mileage is a real grabber to the customer,” said Mark Fields, president of Ford’s Americas division.

The midsize Fusion sedan is Ford’s strongest effort yet to break the dominance of Japanese automakers in hybrid passenger cars. The Fusion’s mileage beats the 33 miles per gallon in the city and 34 miles on highways of the Camry hybrid from Toyota.

And while the Toyota Prius has better mileage, the Fusion is a midsize car rather than a compact like the Prius.

Ford has set a modest sales target of about 25,000 vehicles a year for the Fusion hybrid and the nearly identical Mercury Milan.

Even so, the potential payoff to Ford is not limited to sales in the showroom, said one analyst.

“It’s a halo vehicle, but not a halo performance car like a Shelby Mustang or a Corvette,” said Erich Merkle of the consulting firm Crowe Horwath in Grand Rapids, Mich. “This is a green halo vehicle.”

Detroit’s Big Three came under a barrage of criticism when they went to Washington in November seeking financial help.

The barbs from lawmakers about Detroit’s history of poor products were particularly stinging to Ford, which did not ask for immediate government assistance as General Motorsand Chrysler did.

Introducing a best-in-class hybrid will help the company prove its competitiveness, said Mr. Merkle. “Gas prices are low, but when you look at the political environment, this car couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said.

Still, the Fusion will face certain challenges.

Consumers have flocked to the Prius partly because it does not share its design with any other Toyota models. The distinctive look of the Prius is a rolling advertisement for the fuel-conscious owner.

Also, hybrid versions of larger cars and sport utility vehicles have yet to catch on in a meaningful way in the market.

Mr. Fields said the Fusion’s capabilities should more than make up for its mainstream looks.

The Fusion will be adorned with small “road and leaf” badges that establish its green credentials, but in an understated way.

“Our approach is not to make a hybrid vehicle that looks Nascar in terms of the badges on it,” he said. “We want it to make a statement with its value to the customer.”

The Fusion Hybrid will go on sale in the spring with a price tag of about $27,000, Mr. Fields said. That compares favorably with hybrid versions of the Camry and G.M.’s Chevrolet Malibu.

The Fusion, however, beats both on fuel-economy ratings, even though it has a slightly larger gasoline engine.

Ford said the Fusion can travel more than 700 miles on a single tank of gas. It is equipped with a smaller, nickel-metal hydride battery that produces 20 percent more power than the company’s previous hybrid system used on the Escape S.U.V.

“It’s a new chemistry that has allowed us to reduce the size of the battery, yet get more power,” said Nancy Gioia, director of Ford’s hybrid systems program.

The car can reach speeds up to 47 miles per hour strictly in electric-drive mode. “Many people drive on roads with 45 miles-per-hour speed limits, so we think that’s the sweet spot for the car,” said Ms. Gioia.

Ford has also developed a braking system that captures more than 90 percent of the energy normally lost through friction during braking.

Mr. Fields said the Fusion hybrid is important to Ford’s overall goal of being viewed as a leader in automotive technology, not a follower of foreign competitors. “It’s all about bringing innovations to the marketplace, which Ford had done for many years,” he said. “For a period of time, we lost that leadership and we want it back.”

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